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Wildlife Watchers Could Pay Fee in Alaska

Fish and Game: Those who don't hunt would contribute to management


Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / June 1, 2005


Whale watchers, bear photographers and other wildlife viewers on organized trips would have to buy a special $5 license before boarding the airplane, bus or boat under bills sponsored by Anchorage legislators.

It's time for "nonconsumptive" users of the state's wildlife to help pay the cost of fish and game management, said Republican Sen. Con Bunde, author of SB 166. The cost now falls largely on hunters, trappers and anglers through licenses, tags and federal taxes on their equipment.

"This is an opportunity for those who enjoy outdoor recreation but who don't have a hunting or fishing license to make a contribution to the management of our fish and game resources," Bunde said.

He estimates the license would collect about $2 million a year, about 10 percent of the total that resident and nonresident hunting, fishing and trapping fees raised in 2003.

Neither his bill nor a companion measure introduced in the House by Republican Rep. Mike Hawker passed this year, and they automatically return for more work next session. But the viewing license plan has support from at least some who would be tapped.

"We are all for it," said Chris Day, who with her husband operates Emerald Air Service, a Homer-based bear-viewing business.

After a similar proposal from the Murkowski administration failed to pass the Legislature two years ago, Day has been polling her guests, she said.

"I have not ever had one person -- and we get nine people a day, May through September -- say they wouldn't be happy to pay a fee if it went back into wildlife management."

Currently, the fees from state hunting, fishing and trapping licenses go into a fund administered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Fish and Game Fund, which also gets a portion of nationwide taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, pays nearly all wildlife management costs in the state.

If the new fee is approved, it would eliminate an old complaint among hunters, trappers and fishermen that they alone pay into the Fish and Game Fund.

Bunde's bill could put a new spin on a related argument. Given that no one else pays into the fund, some sportsmen argue that consumptive uses of wildlife should have precedence when the fund is spent.

On the other side, wildlife viewers, photographers and other nonconsumptive users point to the Alaska Constitution, which says the state's natural resources should be managed for the benefit of all.

Bunde said some hunters and anglers may oppose the viewing license in order to limit nonconsumptive users' say in state wildlife management. Too late, he said: "(Wildlife viewers) already have a seat at the table, and their demands are high."

He envisions wildlife viewers buying a license and an enamel pin to display on their hat or jacket, much like the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage provides pins to those who pay to support its ski trails.

Commercial tourism operators would sell the pins or check to see if a person had one before beginning wildlife tours on state lands or waters. The state pin wouldn't be needed to visit federal lands such as Denali National Park, Bunde said, but anyone on a bus tour from Talkeetna to Denali, a whale excursion out of Seward or a bird-viewing cruise on Kachemak Bay would need one.

"We couldn't tack it on all visitors," Bunde said, "but I'm hoping a lot of folks who go (to national parks) would, with some pride, say, 'I've made a contribution to the management of this resource so it can continue to be enjoyed by everyone.' "

Juneau photographer Joel Bennett, who also represents the wildlife protection group Defenders of Wildlife, said visitors already pay fees to reach the premier bear-viewing sites at McNeil River and Pack Creek.

Even so, the new license "would probably go over pretty well," he said.

But the license might disappoint some hunters, said Bennett, a former Board of Game member.

"If viewers started paying their way, so to speak, I think they'd be even less tolerant of the management being skewed out of balance toward consumptive users," he said. "It'd be kind of a two-edged sword for the other side. They'd have to be prepared for more scrutiny on the management."

A survey of several hunting and fishing groups found more acceptance than enthusiasm for the proposed viewing license.

Wayne Kubat, chairman of the Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said his group didn't take an official stand and some members opposed the idea, but he sounded resigned to it. "They're already here, getting media attention, so they might as well pay something," he said.

McGrath resident Ray Collins, a veteran of the long battle to establish wolf control in his area, looked at the license fee from a different angle. "If they're not willing to pay, they should be excluded from the Board of Game process," he said.

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310.

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